April 25, 2014 -- In a matter of 20 days, Cliven Bundy went from being a little-known Nevada cattle rancher to being labeled a conservative folk hero, and then a "racist" who "wondered" if black people were "better off as slaves, picking cotton."
Bundy, a 67-year-old patriarch of a large Mormon family with over 50 grandchildren, first came into the spotlight when the federal government started impounding his 900 head of cattle in early April, following a 20-year battle over cattle-grazing on federal land.
The government claims Bundy owes $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties for continuing to let his cattle roam free on land near Bunkerville, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, even after the government established the area as a protected habitat for the endangered desert tortoise in 1993 and slashed Bundy's cattle allotment.
The situation escalated in the week of April 5 as hundreds of supporters from around the country rallied on Bundy’s property to protest the federal cattle round-up. The dispute reignited debate over Bureau of Land Management practices, especially in Nevada where federal agencies control 85 percent of the land.
The confrontation turned ominous as armed militia gathered on his cattle and melon farm, aiming semi-automatic weapons at armed BLM officials from a bridge overpass. Some protesters were tasered by authorities and others arrested and later released, including one of Bundy’s 14 adult children.
On April 12, the BLM ended the stand-off, returned Bundy’s confiscated cattle and retreated from the land citing safety concerns. But self-styled civilian militia stayed behind to “protect” Bundy’s property and family, while Bundy toured the media circuit to promote his conservative views, flanked at times by armed bodyguards.
Bundy rode a horse while carrying the American flag, and made public speeches in which he repeatedly said he does not recognize the U.S. government, prompting Sen. Harry Reid's, D-Nev. to label Bundy supporters as “domestic terrorists.”
He was initially cheered, however, by Republican politicians including Sen. Rand Paul and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. Paul and Heller later backed away from their support after Bundy's remarks on race were made public.
Bundy became even more controversial, however, and some of his support wilted when he was quoted in the New York Times making racist comments.
"They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton," Bundy said to reporters according to the New York Times. "And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom,"
Paul and Heller both distanced themselves from the rancher after his comments.
Other supporters, however, remain on his ranch, refusing to budge until the Bundy family tells them to go home.